Stories give very powerful messages. One could say we gain our Christianity through stories. And stories compete with each other.

A poll undertaken by the CanWest newspaper chain found that one in six Canadians say they believe what quite clearly is a piece of fiction, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

As Ruth Gledhill of the London Times put it, “What is unnerving is what the whole affair has revealed about a credulous society willing to believe the latest conspiracy theory, even when presented in the guise of true fiction.”

Also interesting is the reaction of some to the discovery a few weeks ago of the Gospel of Judas, a Third Century copy of a Second Century text that tells a story of Jesus and Judas secretly talking. “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom,” Jesus supposedly tells his betrayer.

Here Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and ask him to betray him to the Roman authorities. By doing so, he tells Judas, he will become the greatest of the disciples “for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

In 180 C.E., the Gospel of Judas provoked a furious reaction by those in charge of the Church (or at least, those in what was to become the winning faction of the Church). Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, included the Gospel of Judas in his list of heretical books –one reason today’s scholars believe what has been found is a genuine document.

And even today, the big guns of Christendom, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, felt it necessary to reissue the condemnation of this ancient document as well as the modern one.

According to Pope Benedict, Judas “viewed Jesus in terms of power and success: his only real interests lay with his power and success, there was no love involved. He was a greedy man: money was more important than communing with Jesus; money came before God and his love”.

The Pope said these traits led Judas to “turn liar, two-faced, indifferent to the truth”, “losing any sense of God”, “turning hard, incapable of converting, of being the prodigal son, hence throwing away a spent existence.”

As for the other story, Archbishop Rowan Williams decided not so much to attack the author of The Da Vinci Code as that convenient whipping boy, the media. “One of the ways in which we now celebrate the great Christian festivals in our society is by a little flurry of newspaper articles and television programs raking over the coals of controversies about the historical basis of faith.”

But rather than attack the stories, it might be useful to actually listen to them. Why are they so fascinating? Why do some people want to believe them? Why do they resonate?

In the case of the Gospel of Judas, one has to remember that sincere Christians in Egypt at the time were trying to understand – as we continue to do today - who was this amazing person Jesus. If he was divine, how could he have suffered such a horrible and degrading death as crucifixion? And why in the world would Jesus have picked Judas as a disciple?

Influenced by all sorts of things in their culture, these Christians, which we now label Gnostics, came up with a solution: Judas betrayed Jesus because Jesus wanted him too. It works – except it turns Jesus into a very strange human being, one who would welcome an agonizing death.

Likewise, in the case of the readers of The Da Vinci Code, the story resonates because the stories of the Bible can be so difficult for the modern mind – which tends to feel “truth” is “what really happened.” (If only we had it on video!)

So Brown creates a story in which Jesus has kept a chronicle of his ministry, which would show him “as a wholly human teacher and prophet.” In the novel Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and has a child - and the Church over the ages has hushed up the real story.

This imaginative version (besides being absurd by all measure of historical research) turns Jesus into a rather ordinary human being – and fails to explain why those who knew him believed that he was more than that.

Still, our response shouldn’t be to condemn these stories, but to respond to them with what we believe is a better one–our story about love, and sacrifice, and God transforming creation in unexpected and wonderful ways.

The popularity of these other stories challenges us to know our own story well – which means we have to study it, and really understand it (as many of us are doing – see Bettina Gruver’s column on page 1).

In the end of course not all stories are equal, for some are truer than others.